Back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, you had to buy specific audio interfaces to run Pro Tools, or else you were out of luck: without the hardware, Pro Tools was nothing but dead space on a hard drive. Without Pro Tools, you’d have a rough time getting work in the audio industry.
The original MBOX rose to prominence against this backdrop of proprietary tech. Whether or not it sounded good didn’t really matter; many of my peers simply got one as a dongle for home editing work in Pro Tools.
Twenty years later, the times have become quite different—you can use any interface with Pro Tools. Audio interfaces are better and cheaper than ever. And music from the majors to the indies is often made in bedrooms. In light of such tech, Avid has reinvigorated the MBOX line with the MBOX Studio. I’ve had it in my studio for a few weeks now, and I’m here to tell you whether or not it’s worth the hype.
Unboxing the MBOX
The MBOX Studio claims to “bring professional recording power to your personal studio,” and its features aim to deliver.
You can record eight channels of audio at once, with four combination XLR-1/4" inputs and four 1/4" line-ins. You can set up independent headphone mixes for recording artists and talk to them through a built-in talkback mic. Have multiple pairs of monitors? No problem there: you can drive two sets of speakers, and even set independent levels for each.
More goodies from the pro-studio environment abound: the interface offers two send/return paths for looping-in outboard pieces of gear. You can expand the total number of I/O to 21x22 via ADAT and SPDIF (optical TOSLINK and coaxial connections are on the back). Your monitoring section is adorned with dim, mute, and mono buttons, and the input side gives you pads, 48V phantom power for condenser mics, and a variable-Z control for naturalistic tonal adjustments (a feature of many big-name pro-studio mic pres).
Then come the home-studio flourishes. Want to hear the mix on a Bluetooth soundbar? Bi-directional Bluetooth connectivity lets you do just that. You can comp the perfect DI guitar take over headphones and re-amp the results over the Hi-Z output. This being the 21st century, loopback features are available for podcasting and streaming. 5-Pin MIDI I/O is on hand, as are four touchpads, customizable from the control software.
Oh, did I mention the control software yet? No? That’s a real boon.
Free with the MBOX studio, MBOX Control is quite powerful, giving you the ability to add EQ, verb, and delay to individual channels. This makes it perfect for any vulnerable lead singer hearing their naked voice in the cans; you can boost their confidence with a fader and save the record.
Yes, the software is a wonderful addition to the product, because it offers routing capabilities typically off-limits at this price. Newcomers might even find it educational since they can learn how to route signal to cue mixes within a software-mixer environment—itself a strange beast of an ecosystem (software mixers like this are far less intuitive than DAWs, but necessary to multi-person recording).
But really, it’s a different piece of software that makes the MBOX Studio a huge value proposition: the interface comes with a free year of Pro Tools Studio.
This, my friends, is fantastic news. A year of Pro Tools Studio will run you $39.99 a month, or $299.99 a year, depending on how you sign up for it. The MBOX Studio currently retails at $899.99.
I’ll let those numbers speak for themselves.
But How Does it Sound?
None of this matters if the unit doesn’t sound good. So, you’re probably wondering about sonics: how do the headphone outputs hold up? Does the monitoring section color your speakers? And most importantly, how does the recording path sound?
Let’s start off with monitoring. I tested the unit with Dynaudio BM6s, JBL 705Ps, B&W 802s, Audeze LCD-Xs, and Audio Technica ATH-M50xs. I listened to reference tracks against various setups, including a Mac M1x laptop output, a Focusrite 2i2, a Mackie mixer, and my main rig—a Cranesong Hedd 192 converter feeding a Dangerous Source. I even pulled out my old MBOX from way back in the day to see how the new one stacked against the original.
I can say comfortably that the MBOX Studio sounded better to my ears than everything I put against it—except for the Hedd 192. That’s a tough unit to beat, and it revealed the limitations of the MBOX, its slightly hyped bass, and its narrower soundstage.
But for everyday mixing duties, you won’t have to worry about extant coloration in the monitoring path. You’ll be able to be reasonably confident in your choices, provided your room, speakers, and cans are up to the task.
For recording, I took a DI off my guitar, and recorded my voice with a few different microphones. It all sounded clean. Nothing too special, just clean: a good capture for further in-the-box processing
However, I will say this: the preamps don’t feel like they have much dynamic range to them. The room between whisper quiet and clipping feels rather constricted.
I suspect this is because of their max input level specs (14 dBu, compared to the UAD Apollo’s +20.2 dBu for line inputs and +25 dBu for mic inputs). They do seem to fuzz out on you rather quickly.
Even so, low-level recording was not a problem with the dynamic and condenser microphones I had on hand (no obvious noise floor issues); and, when pushed, the digital clipping did make for a gnarly effect.
I’d use that tone on the right record!
Lastly, I’ll mention that the built-in tuner could use some work. Observe how it compares to other software tuners from Logic and Native Instruments Guitar Rig.
How Does it Feel?
Also important to any working engineer is the overall user experience—how intuitive is the layout? How easy is the software? How do the knobs feel? Does it speed up the ol’ workflow?
In my opinion, this area could use a little work, especially in the software department. Without a manual on hand (my unit arrived before the documentation was posted online) it took a few confounding minutes to get the headphone outputs playing in stereo. Many a newcomer could be confounded without adequate tutorials.
For a certain kind of user, the MBOX Studio is fantastic. You just ought to make sure you are that user before you acquire it.
If I were about to ship off to pro-audio school, and I wanted something with the ability to hone my craft in the off-hours between classes, this would be a stellar choice. It would help me get used to the ergonomics of the pro-studio environment, right down to its continued DAW of choice. And I’d get some solid recordings out of it, to boot.
I could see my younger self slinging milkshakes for a summer to save up for one. It’s got great features and a full-featured, free copy of Pro Tools in the box—what more could you want?
If that kind of user sounds like you, I encourage you to check one out for yourself. And let us know what you think of it down in the Comments section, below!